ASK MARTHA: Martha’s Hard-Working Shrubs for Year-Round Curb Appeal

Martha’s guide to selecting and planting hard-working shrubs

Question: Hi Martha, I just bought a new house that I love, but the foundation bushes are overgrown and neglected. What can I plant to give it a fresh look? 

Martha: If you are looking for year-round appeal and relatively easy care, look no further than hard-working shrubs. Shrubs are nearly low- maintenance. Plant them, feed them occasionally, prune them maybe once a year and enjoy.

Throughout most of the growing season, shrubs provide a framework for landscaping. Then, in winter, the same shrubs and trees stand out as the garden's most enduring, and endearing, structure.

When choosing garden shrubs, we tend to focus on the flowers. That's not surprising, but a bit shortsighted. With a few exceptions, any given shrub blooms no more than three to four weeks each year; for the remaining weeks, the shrub's other attributes determine its impact on the landscape. That's why, when selecting shrubs, you should always take the four-season perspective.

You will discover that there's a whole class of hard-working shrubs, four-season performers that offer something every day of the year. Most of the four-season shrubs have flowers we love, and they also bear colorful fruits and handsome foliage. 

And when winter arrives, these shrubs' subtler charms emerge: the colorful stems, the bicolor or peeling bark, the prominent winter buds, the unusual textures or patterns of the branches, the shrubs' overall form. These attributes make a shrub a four-season winner. Here are some standouts:


Light, airy, and graceful, amelanchiers - also known as serviceberries or shad bushes - flash pure white, fleecy flowers along the woodland's edge every spring. But flowers are only one of the attractions of these 15- to 20-foot-tall shrubs.

The new leaves that emerge with, or just after, the blossoms are reddish-bronze, and they mature to a cool blue-green. The clusters of fruit quickly turn red, then ripen to a deep blue-black. Besides attracting birds, this fruit makes pies and preserves that rival the best of blueberries.

Fall brings wonderful yellowish-orange to red foliage, and in winter the structure of the fine branches and the smooth, gray bark provides a perfect scaffold for snow.

There are many fine amelanchiers, but one of the best is Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance,' a cultivar whose glowing red fall foliage often hangs on late into the season. Other fail-safe options are the Amelanchier x grandiflora cultivars 'Cole's Select,' which also sports out­standingly rich, red fall color, and 'Robin Hill,' whose pink buds fade to white as the flowers open.

Amelanchiers are not recommended for the warmer areas of the Southwest or the Pacific coast's more humid areas; elsewhere, however, these shrubs are extraordinarily reliable.

Cornus and Salix

Though we think of willows (Salix) and dogwoods (Cornus) as trees, both genera include a good number of shrubby species. Many offer handsome foliage. Salix integra 'ltakuro Nishiki’, for example, a relatively compact 5-foot-tall shrub, bears leaves variegated with pink, cream, and green. And the willow's early spring blossoms, the velvety pussy willows, provide one of the most sensually satisfying textures in the plant world. But the outstanding attraction of the shrubby willows and dogwoods is undoubtedly their vividly colored stems, which show vividly in the other­wise bleak landscape of winter.

The most brilliant Salix is the coral bark willow, Salix alba 'Britzensis,' whose tan, rose, and apricot stems truly glow. Camus stolonifera, the red osier, is the dogwood star. Its cultivar 'Cardinal' has stems that are red in late fall and then turn pink in winter and chartreuse in spring, while 'Flaviramea' has yellow stems, and 'Silver and Gold' offers both yellow stems in winter and creamy-edged variegated leaves in summer. With all these shrubs, the new twigs are the most brilliant; to keep them at peak color, cut the shrubs back to the ground every second or third spring.


Hydrangeas have long been a beloved part of gardens, and their old-fashioned appeal makes us nostalgic for the long, hot days of summers past. Their dramatic clusters of flowers are produced at the height of the season and speak to the lush bounty of midsummer. These deciduous shrubs can vary in size from just three to five feet tall for smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens), big leaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla), and oak-leaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), and all the way up to 20 feet tall for panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata). All are best suited with some sun; morning sun and afternoon shade, along with a good mulch, like Miracle-Gro® Organic All Natural Mulch, is ideal. H. arborescem and H. paniculata bloom on new wood and can be pruned hard at the end of the growing season or in spring just before buds emerge. H. quercifolia and H. macrophylla bloom on old wood. This means the next season's buds form on growth the plant makes during the current season. Any pruning should be done just after flowering so that new buds can form before winter sets in. Hydrangeas grow best in Zones 4 to 8. The ones shown here are at Martha's Lily Pond Lane home. She planted a mix of H. macrophylla cultivars, creating a kaleidoscope of color in the summer garden.


Don't wait for Christmas to celebrate with hollies (Ilex), which include many of the finest broad-leaved evergreens. Particularly elegant are the blue hollies (Ilex x meserveae), whose leaves are a lustrous blue green, and whose white flowers are followed by loads of shiny red fruits-if you provide your female specimens with a male consort. 'Blue Girl' forms a pyramidal shrub 8 to 10 feet tall; 'Blue Princess' reaches a height of 15 feet and a width of 10 feet; 'Blue Prince' (the berryless but necessary male) is bushy, growing to 8 to 12 feet. All are widely adapted to Northern regions.

For a similar effect in the Southern states (including Florida), rely on Ilex cornuta 'Burfordii' (10 to 15 feet tall), I. cornuta 'Dwarf Burford' (about 5 feet), and the very heavily fruiting yaupon holly I. vomitoria

'Pride of Houston.' I. cornuta 'D'or' started as a sport, a mutation that appeared as a single branch on a bush of I. cornuta 'Burfordii.' In most respects, this sport is like its parent, with dark, almost black-green, very glossy leaves and a densely rounded shape, but 'D'or' offers one striking contrast: bright golden berries instead of the standard scarlet.


Blueberries belong in your garden, not just on your cereal. Both the lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, which tops out at a height of less than 2 feet, and the highbush, V. corymbosum, which grows 6 to 12 feet tall, combine delicate whitish-pink flowers, lustrous fine-textured, dark green summer foliage, delicious deep blue berries, orange-red fall foliage, and yellow-green to reddish winter twigs. They contribute every season, though the early-summer berry harvest is what attracts flocks of birds and children.

Blueberries need acid soil-highbush will grow well even in Florida if the soil pH is right. Outstanding highbush cultivars include 'Northland,' 'Northblue,' and 'Elliott'; 'Northsky' is a lowbush cultivar with particularly tasty fruits. In the Pacific Northwest, the related lingonberry, V. vitis-idaea, provides a native alternative; its cultivar 'Koralle' forms a low, evergreen ground cover with deep-red fruit and mahogany winter foliage. Across the Southeast and Southwest, V. arboreum, farkleberry, is a welcome large drought- and heat-tolerant, spreading shrub with white flowers, leathery dark-green leaves, and peeling bark that ranges from gray-brown through orange and reddish brown. Its black fruits are decorative but inedible.


The doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum, ranks near the top of any list of must-have shrubs. The doublefiles are large shrubs whose branches reach out in a distinctive pattern of horizontal tiers, which in springtime are covered with 6-inch disks of creamy to white flowers that perch atop the branches as if just resting. The fruits, a carmine red that gradually changes to black, are a magnet for birds. In fall, the green leaves blush to a mahogany-wine hue. 'Mariesii' is a popular cultivar that reaches a height of almost 12 feet. 'Shasta' grows about 6 feet high and 10 to 12 feet wide. Compact 'Summer Snowflake' tops out at just 4 to 6 feet; it blooms continually throughout the summer. Doublefile viburnums flourish everywhere in zones 5 through 8, except in southern Florida and the Southwest, where V. suspensum is a better choice. A large evergreen shrub, this bears fragrant, pale-pink flowers followed by red berries that mature to black. North of zone 5, try V. x rhytidophylloides 'Allegheny,' a dense shrub no more than 8 feet tall, which produces white flowers and fruits that change from yellow to red to black, often bearing all three colors at once.

Other Options

While filling out your shrubbery schedule, don't forget the witchhazels (Hamamelis) and their cousins, Fothergilla major and F. gardenii. Their fragrant flowers bracket the seasons: Common witchhazel, H. virginiana, blooms in mid-to late fall, and Chinese witchhazel, H. mollis, as early as February; both fothergillas are spring bloomers. All the above have interesting leaves with great fall color. A four-season star among rhododendrons is Rhododendron yakushi­manum. This gracefully mounded shrub bears large, spectacular flowers set off by dark-green evergreen leaves that are light gray-brown and woolly on the undersides. Superior R. yakushi­manum cultivars include 'Yaku Angel,' 'Yaku Prince,' and 'Yaku Queen.' Finally, it may take some hunting to locate a specimen of Heptacodium miconioides, the seven-son flower from China, but it's worth the search. This shrub thrives throughout most of the United States. After clothing itself with dark-green leaves in early spring, it sprouts red flower buds that open in late summer into fragrant yellowish­white flowers that are borne seven to a stem. As the petals drop, the remnants of the flowers turn a reddish purple. Round out the year in wintertime by enjoying the Heptacodium's light-tan, papery exfoliating (peeling) bark.

The Basics


A bare-root shrub should be removed from its shipping carton and any wrapping as soon as it arrives from the nursery. Stand it in a bucket, with water just covering the roots, overnight. Plant the next morning.

1. Dig a hole just deep and wide enough to comfortably accommodate the shrub’s roots. After adding compost and any other amendments to the excavated soil, pile a cone of the soil in the center of the planting hole. Set the plant on top, spreading the roots down and outward.

2. Fill in around the plant with compost-enriched soil, such as Miracle-Gro® Organic Raised Bed and Garden Soil massaging the soil in among the roots with your fingertips or a bamboo stake to eliminate air pockets.

3. When you have finished filling the hole, mound the soil into a low, circular dike around the newly planted shrub. Fill the resulting well with water, let it drain, and then fill it once more.

4. Make sure to water your new shrub regularly while they establish themselves. A good guide is for the first two years, or whenever two weeks go by without a good rain.

5. Don’t forget to feed them! If your soil is enriched, start feeding after 2 - 3 months. Miracle-Gro® Shake 'n Feed® Extended Boost is a slow-release plant food that I prefer. Just apply once in the spring to provide nutrients for the whole growing season.


A burlap-wrapped root ball can be damaged easily; handle it no more than is necessary.

1. Use a stake or shovel handle to measure the root ball’s width and depth, then shape the planting hole accordingly.

2. Set the ball in the hole and cut the cords that secure the wrapper. A real burlap wrapper can be rolled down and left to decompose, but a non-biodegradable synthetic one must be removed. Amend compacted or poor soil with enriched soil Miracle-Gro® Organic Raised Bed and Garden Soil replacing no more than 25 percent of the soil with it. Firmly pack the area by treading lightly with your heel.

3. Mound the soil into a dike, fill the well with water, let drain, and refill once more.

4. Make sure to water your new shrub regularly while they establish themselves. A good guide is for the first two years, or whenever two weeks go by without a good rain.

5. Don’t forget to feed them! If your soil is enriched, start feeding after 2 - 3 months. Miracle-Gro® Shake 'n Feed® Extended Boost is a slow-release plant food that I prefer. Just apply once in the spring to provide nutrients for the whole growing season. 

Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.